With Harriet's help, Lottie undressed quickly and let down her hair. Covered in only a blush, she stepped over the raised threshold of the shower-bath. Viewing the steaming water that poured lavishly from the perforated projection directly overhead, she hesitated. A cold draft curled around her, raising gooseflesh on her skin.
"Go on, miss," the maid encouraged, seeing her irresolution.
Taking a breath, Lottie walked straight into the fall of water, while the door closed gently behind her. A startling suffusion of heat, a moment of watery blindness, until she maneuvered far enough that her face was no longer directly in the spray. Wiping her streaming eyes with her hands, Lottie laughed in sudden pleasure. "It's like standing in the rain," she exclaimed.
The loud spattering of water on tile made the housemaid's reply inaudible. Standing still, Lottie absorbed the exhilarating sensation, the needling warmth on her back, the steam that saturated her lungs. The door opened a crack, and a bar of soap and a sponge were extended to her. She soaped her hair and body and turned in slow circles, her face uplifted, eyes and mouth tightly closed. Hot water slid everywhere, over her br**sts and stomach, down her thighs, between her toes. It was a surprisingly sensual experience, making her feel at once enervated and relaxed. She wanted to stand there for hours. However, all too soon the water began to cool. With a regretful sigh, Lottie stepped away from the shower-stream before she became completely chilled.
"It's cold now," she called to Harriet, who twisted the valve outside the door before handing her a towel that had been warmed on the hot-water pipe.
Shivering in the cool air, Lottie blotted her face and hair, and wrapped the towel around herself. "If only it could have lasted a bit longer," she said wistfully, making Harriet smile.
"In three hours, there will be enough hot water for another, miss."
Lottie followed the maid to the adjoining dressing room, where her dark blue dress and fresh linens had been set out for her on a narrow daybed. "It would almost be worth marrying Mr. Gentry just for his shower-bath," she said.
The remark earned a cautiously inquiring glance from Harriet. "It's true, then, miss? You are going to marry the master?"
"It would seem so."
It was obvious that the housemaid was eaten up with curiosity but somehow managed to remain respectfully silent. Lottie dropped her wet towel and pulled on her drawers and chemise with modest haste. When she was decently covered, she sat on the velvet-covered daybed and began to tug her thick cotton stockings over her calves. She couldn't help wondering how many women had bathed and dressed and slept here. Gentry's bed must be as busy as a brothel. "I suppose you've attended quite a few female guests at Mr. Gentry's home," she commented, reaching for a garter.
Harriet stunned her by saying, "No, Miss 'Oward."
Lottie nearly dropped the garter in surprise. "What?" She raised her brows as she stared at the housemaid. "Surely I am not the first woman that he has brought here."
"Ye are as far as I know, miss."
"But that can't be true." She paused and added with deliberate bluntness, "I am certain that Mr. Gentry has entertained no less than a harem's worth in his bedroom."
The housemaid shook her head. "I've never seen any ladies visit the 'ouse...not in that way. O' course, after the Barthas fire, many lady admirers sent letters an' made calls." A sly grin touched Harriet's lips. "The 'ole street was filled with carriages, an' poor Mr. Gentry couldn't go through 'is own front door, as a crowd waited for 'im ewery morning."
"Hmmph." Lottie fastened her garter neatly over her stocking and reached for the other one. "But he's never brought a mistress here?"
"Oh, no, miss."
Evidently Gentry was more scrupulous than she had expected-or at least, he wished to keep his home completely private. It must be that he satisfied his sexual needs at a brothel, or-distasteful thought-perhaps his appetites were base enough that he sought the services of alleyway prostitutes. But he seemed more discerning than that. The way he touched her bespoke the appreciation of a connoisseur rather than a simple brute. Her face flamed, and she tried, as she dressed, to cover her discomfiture by asking further questions of the housemaid.
Lottie quickly discovered that Harriet was far more voluble on the subject of Gentry than Mrs. Trench had been. According to the housemaid, Gentry was something of a mystery even to his own servants, as one never knew what to expect from him. He comported himself like a gentleman in private but did not shrink from the violence of his profession. He could be scathing or kind, brutal or gentle, his moods infinitely mercurial. Like the other Bow Street runners, Gentry kept odd hours and could be summoned at any moment to assist at some disaster, or investigate a murder, or apprehend a particularly dangerous fugitive. There was little structure or routine to his days, and he did not like to make plans. And curiously, he did not sleep well, and was occasionally tormented by nightmares.
"Nightmares about what?" Lottie asked, fascinated.
"He won't say, not even to 'is valet, Dudley. But he makes the most fearsome noises in 'is sleep sometimes, and then 'e wakes 'imself, and won't go back to bed for the rest o' the night. Dudley says it must be from things that Mr. Gentry remembers from..." Pausing, Harriet glanced at Lottie warily.
"From his days in the underworld?" Lottie asked calmly. "Yes, I am aware of Mr. Gentry's criminal past."
"'E weren't a criminal, miss. Not 'xactly. 'E was a thief-taker. But 'e owned a flash house near Fleet Ditch, and 'e was put in the stone jug a time or two."
"Imprisoned, you mean?"
Harriet nodded, adding with a boastful note in her voice, "Escaped twice, Mr. Gentry did. They say there's not a prison that can 'old 'im. The second time, 'e was weighted wiv three 'undred pounds o' chains, right in the Devil's Closet, in the center o' Newgate. An' 'e slipped out an' shuttered off easy as ye please."
Lottie was not surprised by the information, knowing what she did of Gentry's unusual agility, physical strength, and wily nature. Perhaps the image of her soon-to-be husband as a hardened criminal should have alarmed her, but instead it was oddly reassuring. She was more convinced than ever that he would not be intimidated or easily outwitted by Lord Radnor. He was quite possibly the best protection she could have enlisted.
Yawning, she went with Harriet to the guest room, a room with soft blue walls, an exquisite tent bed enclosed with gray-and-blue curtains, and a large Hepplewhite wardrobe with a row of cunning little drawers for gloves, stockings, and other small necessities. She found her comb in one of the drawers, and she approached the hearth as the housemaid lit a fire in the grate. "Thank you, that is lovely," she said. "That will be all for now, Harriet."
"Yes, miss. The bellpull is there, if ye needs anyfing."
Sitting beside the hearth, Lottie combed her fine, straight hair until the long blond strands were warm from the heat of the fire. From somewhere in the house, a clock chimed four times. As she glanced at the gray sky outside the window and the raindrops that scattered against the glass panes, she shivered. For just a little while, she would push away her concerns about the future. Setting aside the comb, she crawled onto the bed, drew the hangings closed, and rested against the pillows.
She fell asleep rapidly, swimming through a haze of pleasant images...walking through the forest in Hampshire...dangling her feet in a cool pond on a hot day...pausing in the kissing gate, while the smell of sun-warmed meadowsweet rose thickly to her nostrils. She closed her eyes and tilted her chin upward, relishing the sultry rays, while a butterfly's wings brushed lightly against her cheek. Entranced by the delicate tickle, she held very still. The silken strokes moved over the tip of her nose, the sensitive periphery of her upper lip, the tender corners of her mouth.
Searching blindly, she lifted her face to the brushes of warmth and was rewarded by a gentle pressure that opened her lips and drew a moan from the upper part of her lungs. Lord Sydney was standing with her in the kissing gate, his arms trapping her against the painted ribs of latticework. His mouth searched hers so gently, his body firm against hers, and she writhed in a mute plea for him to hold her more tightly. Seeming to know exactly what she wanted, he pushed his knee into her skirts, right against the place that felt swollen and yearning. Gasping, she curled her fingers in his glossy hair, and he whispered for her to relax, that he would take care of her, satisfy her- "Oh." Blinking hard, she stirred from the sensuous dream as she realized that she was not alone. The bed curtains had been drawn aside, and Nick Gentry's long body was entangled with hers. One large hand was cupped beneath her hips, while his leg wedged more intimately between hers. His breath surged against her ear, filling the shell with moist heat, and then his lips wandered back to hers in a searing path. He absorbed her protest as he kissed her, his tongue searching her mouth, his body levering over hers. She felt the hard length of his erection, nudging against the cleft between her thighs until she could feel it distinctly through the layers of their clothing...a restrained thrust...another...another...each rhythmic insinuation was so maddeningly good that she could not bring herself to stop him. She was filled with a physical agitation that penetrated to her soul, and every part of her demanded that she pull him harder, closer, tighter.
Instead Lottie pushed at him, ripping her mouth free with a sob. "No."
He released her, and she rolled to her stomach, resting on her clenched fists. As her lungs moved in violent inhalations, she was aware of him right behind her, the powerful length of his body pressing against her from neck to heels.
"You took advantage of me while I was sleeping," she said breathlessly. "That's not fair."
Gentry's hand moved over her hip in a slow circle. "I seldom play fair. It's usually easier to cheat."
A sudden laugh bubbled in Lottie's throat. "You are the most shameless man I've ever encountered."
"Probably," he conceded, pushing her hair aside and lowering his smiling mouth to the back of her neck. She inhaled sharply as she felt him nuzzle the fragile wisps of hair at her nape. "How soft you are," he breathed. "Like silk. Like kitten fur."
The touch of his lips sent a ripple through the overheated core of her body. "Nick, I-"
"Mrs. Trench told me that you tried the shower-bath." His hand coasted from her hip to the indentation of her waist. "Did you like it?"
"It was very refreshing," Lottie managed to say.
"I'm going to watch you the next time."
"Oh, no you won't!"
He laughed quietly and offered, "I'll let you watch me, then."
Before she could stop herself, Lottie imagined him standing in the shower-bath, the water coursing and gliding over his skin, darkening his hair, steam veiling his sapphire eyes. The image was a vague one, as she had never seen a na*ed man, only the engraved images in an anatomy book she had found in Lord Westcliff's library. She had pored over the drawings with fascination, wishing that certain details had been more fully articulated.
Soon she would not have to wonder.
He seemed to read her thoughts. "It's not wrong to like it," he said, stroking her midriff with his palm. "Whom will it benefit if you deny yourself pleasure? You're paying the price for my protection-you may as well get some enjoyment out of it."
"But you're a stranger," she said ruefully.
"What husband isn't a stranger to his wife? Courtship consists of a dance at a ball, a chaperoned drive through the park, and a conversation or two in the garden. Then the parents agree on the match, the ceremony is performed, and the girl finds herself in bed with a man she hardly knows. There isn't much difference between that scenario and ours, is there?"
Lottie frowned and rolled to face him, knowing there was a flaw in his reasoning, but she was unable to identify it. Gentry was reclining on his side, propped up on one elbow, the broad outline of his shoulders obscuring most of the light shed by the bedside lamp. His body was so large and sheltering, his self-confidence so substantial, that it seemed as if she could wrap it around herself like a blanket and stay safe forever.
Shrewdly, he understood her Achilles' heel-that terrible need for sanctuary-and he did not hesitate to make use of it. He slid his arm over her waist, his hand resting on the middle of her back, his thumb brushing along the stiff arc of her spine. "I'll take care of you, Lottie. I'll keep you safe and provide all the comforts you require. All I want in return is for you to enjoy yourself with me. That isn't so terrible, is it?"
He had Lucifer's own skill of making what he wanted sound perfectly reasonable. Discerning her weakness, he leaned over until the solid weight of his body was poised above her and his thigh pressed into the mattress between her legs. "Kiss me," he whispered. The sweet, drugging spice of his breath and skin sent her thoughts scattering like dry leaves in the wind.
She shook her head, even though the most tender parts of her body had begun to throb in acute longing.
"Why not?" he asked, his fingertips teasing the edge of her hairline.
"Because a kiss is something that a woman gives to a sweetheart...something you are not."
He trailed the backs of his fingers lightly over her throat, between her breasts, down over her stomach. "You kissed me at Stony Cross Park."
A fierce blush enveloped her. "I didn't know who you were then."
His hand settled perilously low on her stomach. Were she not clothed, his fingers would have been resting at the top of the triangle between her thighs. "I'm the same man, Lottie." His hand began to stray even lower, until she caught at his wrist and shoved it away.
Gentry chuckled, and then sobered as he moved back to look at her. "I saw Lord Radnor today."
Although Lottie had expected it, she still felt a chill of alarm. "What happened? What did you tell him?"
"I returned his money, informed him of your decision to marry me, and warned him not to bother you or your family in the future."
"How angry was he?"
He held his thumb and forefinger a mere millimeter apart. "He was this close to apoplexy."
The thought of Radnor's anger filled her with satisfaction, but at the same time, she could not quell a sudden shiver. "He won't give up. He'll cause trouble for both of us, in every way possible."
"I've dealt with worse characters than Radnor," he said evenly.
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